Regardless of who you voted for today, or why you chose one candidate over another, you are likely part of a group of Americans who comprise just half the population.
That’s right. Despite millions upon millions of dollars in advertising enriching the likes of General Electric and Disney, only about half of Americans eligible will vote today, whether it’s for Republican Mitt Romney or Democrat President Barack Obama; or for House candidates, senators, or in local and regional contests.
In 1960, when Richard Nixon ran against John F. Kennedy, 63.1 percent of the population voted — which at the time was castigated as poor for a democracy. If America is really the world’s leading democracy, why do 26 other democracies get higher, much higher voter turnouts? Americans love to mock France, but 72 percent of French people voted last time. There is also a direct correlation between voter turnout and percentage of women elected to office. Women are half the population, but only 12 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives is female. The correlation isn’t perfect, but Denmark has 83 percent voter turnout and 37 percent female legislators; Finland has 72/33; New Zealand 83/45.
The easier and more accommodating the voting rules, the higher the voter turnout. Australia leads with 96 percent voter turnout. More on that later.
The percentage of Americans voting in a presidential election stayed above 60 until 1972, when it dipped to 55.2 percent when Nixon crushed the [later proven right] George McGovern. We as a voting populace rallied to 55.1 percent in 1992 for Bill Clinton against George H. W. Bush, up from 50.1 in 1988. In 1996, we dropped below half for the first time, as 49.1 turned out for Clinton vs. Bob Dole vs. Ross Perot. The presidential elections that followed, 2000 [51.3], 2004 [55.3] and 2008 [56.8] actually trended up.
Today’s turnout is just a guess, but that recent trend is likely not going to last. And here’s the punchline: These are all percentages for presidential years, when the stakes are high, the media coverage rabid and the advertising unlimited. In “off-year” elections, which for individual Americans may be far more important than the presidential races for their states and cities, 37.8 percent turned out in 2010, the most since 1994.
In fact, the off-year gubernatorial, state house, mayoral elections turnout has not exceeded 40 percent since before 1960, averaging 39.8 percent in the 13 elections since. We are perilously close to becoming a nation that elects its governors, mayors and state legislatures with close to one-third of the population.
I’ve said and written too many times that if an invading nation subjugated America and ordered that only 39 percent of our population were eligible to vote, there would be a rebellion.
This is a crisis, a long-brewing, growing crisis of immense proportions that no one outside academia seems to know how to fix. But here are a few suggestions:
1. It’s the internet, stupid. If nearly 1 billion people can safely post all manner of ridiculous and fun and personal content on Facebook and can buy everything from books to diapers on the internet, could America not find safe and secure ways to let 200 million Americans vote via their phones, tablet or computer? Must we really spend interim billions of dollars on computer-like systems standing in school gyms, fire halls and libraries? Cut to the chase. Use Social Security numbers as IDs and let people vote electronically.
2. Make it easier, not harder to register. If you’re a citizen over 18 you have the right to vote. Why must it be so difficult to exercise that right? Show a citizen-validating ID with your birthdate and vote. End of story.
3. “Election Day” is an anachronism. Americans had weeks to elect George Washington over John Quincy Adams in 1789, the first presidential election, and we should return to that. Early ballots are becoming popular in many states. But why not give everyone weeks to vote, with “Election Day” being the last day to vote instead of the first?
4. Emphasize more in school that voting is a right, among many, that hundreds of thousands of Americans died to protect. Emphasize that there are multiple nations around the world still where leaders take office at gunpoint, through intimidation, murder and torture; that billions of people in the world live their lives with no say over who governs them. Surely this is being taught in our schools today, but if it is, the methods are failing and the passion is not being communicated.
This crisis persists because of the irony of “elected officials.” The people who would have to change this system and counter this crisis of non-voting are the same people whom we elect to govern us and who retain their salaries and multiple perks by getting re-elected to their jobs. And they like the system just the way it is.
Surely if you ask members of Congress — or any other office — if they’d like to see more than 54 percent or 39 percent of their constituents vote in their elections, they’ll say yes. But the truth is they don’t want more people voting. They want more voters committed to them voting. New voters? Immigrants? Lapsed voters? Young voters? Internet voters? Democracy is so messy, isn’t it? Let’s keep it as it is.
That’s the crisis. The gatekeepers to change hold the keys and they aren’t opening the way without a fight. Maybe, like so much in our lives these days, the demands and allure of technology will make internet-based voting a fait accompli in the near future. Maybe all the politicians will realize they can’t hold back the flood any more than network television could stop cable, newspapers could stop web-based news sites or AT&T could only sell rotary dial phones.
But here’s the crux of this crisis: Whomever wins today will only have about five in 10 Americans eligible to vote involved in the process. And that means, given the anticipated closeness of this presidential race, that the next president will claim office with only slightly more than one in four Americans actually choosing him to be president.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.